Called to Keep Trying

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Called to Keep Trying

July 16, 2017       Maple Grove UMC

 

          There are at least three ways of hearing this parable.  The interpretation that Matthew gives in chapter 13 invites you to ponder what kind of soil you are. 

  • We could be like soil on a path where there’s just too much going on and kingdom messages get through. One prominent preacher complains that people don’t listen to what he says. Church announcements are published in the parish paper, he says, reprinted in the weekly bulletin, and repeated orally before worship. Then during the Benediction he prays: “Lord, please help the people to remember the fellowship supper on Wednesday at 6:30--that’s Wednesday at 6:30, Lord. And invariably at the door afterwards someone will ask, “Are we going to have the fellowship dinner?”1 People don’t listen! Don’t be like that path soil.

  • We could be like shallow, rocky ground. “Whatever happened to so-and-so,” people ask, “who joined the church a year ago and was so excited about things?” “Well,” I’ll respond, “his friends gave him a hard time for going to church and he kind of let it go,” or “She was on a ministry team and a decision didn’t go her way, so she stopped coming.” Don’t be like that shallow, rocky soil.

  • Some people are like thorny ground, where the cares of the world choke seeds off. Fred Craddock tells about worshiping one time where the sermon was dynamic, the music was inspiring, the whole thing was life-changing. As he walked out he picked up a bulletin someone had dropped. On it was a handwritten conversation: “Shall we close the deal today?” it began. In another hand: “But it’s Sunday.” In the first hand again, “But if we don’t close it today we may lost it.”2 During church! Weeds choke out the Word. Don’t be like thorny ground.

  • What we want to be is good soil, where God’s Word takes root and grows, bearing fruit of 30, 60, 100 times.

There’s a good sermon in there, but I’m reading it a different way today.

 

          A second way of hearing this parable is to imagine ourselves not as soil but as seeds; we are how God shares the kingdom with others.  It’s not so much our mission, it’ss our identity, our privilege to be tossed out there by God.  Can you imagine yourself as God’s seed, yielding for God 100 more people, or 60, or 30 . . . or 1?  There’s a good sermon that way, too. 

 

          But there’s another way to read this story, perhaps the most natural way.  Remember—the main character in a parable is usually the one mentioned first.  And this parable starts out like this:  “Listen! A sower went out to sow . . .”  So who’s the story about?  The sower.

          Taken this way, the parable is about how hard, how unpredictable, frankly how discouraging this work of sharing God’s love and inviting people to church can be.  You dream of bearing fruit 30, 60 or 100-fold, and all too often what you wind up with is a grand total of nothing. 

          Remember from last Sunday--Jesus had reason to be discouraged at this point in his ministry.  His message has become divisive and unpopular, cities where he did deeds of power have rejected him, and even John the Baptist has his doubts.  The early church, where Matthew wrote his gospel, had similar experiences and disappointments.  The Parable of the Sower addresses questions like, “If Jesus is so wonderful, why doesn’t everyone believe in him?  If the Kingdom of God is at hand, why doesn’t it look like it?  And why hasn’t the Church been more successful?”3

          When we’re honest, we Methodists have similar questions.  Some of you have been hard at work sowing God’s seed in this church for fifty years, yet worship attendance is about half what it was fifty years ago. And despite well-loved pastors and dedicated members, the Methodist church has been shrinking since the 1970s.4 What’s going on?

          So many people want to blame pastors for their discouragement about church.  So many pastors want to blame their church members.  But in his parable, Jesus doesn’t feel the need to blame anyone.  It’s just the way it is, he says:  some of the seed falls on the path where birds eat it, and some falls on the rocky ground that has no depth, and some falls where thorns choke it out.  And some seed falls on good soil and bears fruit--but not all of it, not all the time.  Rejection of Jesus and small crowds in church don’t have to be anybody’s fault.  The question isn’t, who can I blame. The question is what are we going to do about it? Well, Jesus’ parable suggests a couple of answers.

 

  1. First, the church is based not on efficiency, but on trusting God’s abundance. Jesus does not say, Let’s appoint a Soil Analysis Committee to figure out the best place to plant our precious seeds. He didn’t say, Let’s plant only certain kinds of seeds, or only at certain times of year, so we don’t run out of precious seed. We get to thinking that resources are scarce; but Jesus’ parable has a different idea. So when times are tough we want to cut the budget; Jesus wants us to give ourselves away. When the crowd gets smaller, we want to circle the wagons and take care of the ones we’ve still got; Jesus wants us to keep reaching out. Jesus says, just keep throwing seeds out there. There’s no shortage of love to share; there’s plenty of seed. So just keep throwing it out there.

              It reminds me of the song, In This Very Room—I believe it’s Nancy Foulger who sometimes sings it for us:

              And in this very room there's quite enough love for all of us,           And in this very room there's quite enough joy for all of us,           And there's quite enough hope and quite enough power

                 to chase away any gloom,           For Jesus, Lord Jesus ... is in this very room.

     

              “Beneath this parable,” writes one pastor, “is a bedrock assumption of abundance. . . Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.”5 Go ahead and share! There’s plenty for everyone!

     

  2. That’s one lesson from this parable—the kingdom of God has an abundance of love and room for all. Share it!

              Here’s the other lesson of the parable, as I see it. Jesus’ message in the face of unresponsive cities, smaller crowds and discouraging results is this: keep trying. Don’t give up. We may or may not be granted what feels like success, but we are called to keep at it. According to the parable, at least ¾ of kingdom seeds never bear fruit, ¾ of our efforts to share God’s love and invite people to church won’t pan out. The answer to that is not to give up. The answer is to sow even more seed, to invite at least four for everyone one you want to show up, to keep trying.

    Of course, in order to keep trying you have to start trying. I read a sermon by a preacher whose church was just about to move into a new, larger facility. He ended his sermon like this: In a short while our church is going to be in our new building. We are going to be in a place in which you can finally invite your friends to come. We do not have room now, and we appreciate your keeping them away so far. But soon we are going to have a place, and then I may just say, “Scatter the seed. It will land in the most unlikely places, and some people may say, “Why did you invite him?” But you never know, because the seed is the Word of God, and once the invitation is out there, you never know what might happen.6

    Well, I’ve done an audit of available space here at Maple Grove and there’s seems to be plenty of room. So I’m saying it today—Scatter the seed, my friends. Throw it out there!

              In the face of smaller crowds and disappointing results, trust in God’s abundance and keep trying.

     

     

1 Fred B. Craddock, “God Opens the Ear,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 44.

2 Craddock, 44-45.

3 See Mark Trotter, What Are You Waiting For? Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 17.

4 David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 183.

5 Brian Hiortdahl, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (June 28, 2011), 21.

6 Fred B. Craddock, “At Random,” The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 24.

 

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